Experts share tips for improving mental health as we emerge and heal from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
COVID-19 has become a big part of our daily lives. Between news reports on it, its economic costs, and the regular updates on local cases, it can feel impossible to escape COVID-19’s effects.
Feelings of increased anxiety, uneasiness, and fear are far from uncommon — even when people seem to be thriving at home as they pick up new hobbies or read through their entire home libraries.
If you’re still feeling like it’s difficult to move through your day, you’re not alone.
We’re just starting to truly understand the mental health effects of the past year.
“Everyone is experiencing this pandemic and quarantine differently,” explains Dr. Jessica Myszak, a child psychologist. “An apt description I’ve heard is that we are all in the same storm, but we are in different types of boats.”
The mental health impact on adults
What we do know is that living through a pandemic has removed many foundations we used to rely on, like a stable income, a social support system, and food security.
That’s why 2 in 5 U.S. adults reported difficulties with mental health issues and substance use in June 2020, according to the
Mental health professionals have also seen an increase in the number of people seeking professional help and therapy. Even as the pandemic passes its 1-year anniversary, approximately 1 in 5 U.S. adults still experience high levels of distress.
Many people who were required to report to their workplace in person faced daily stress and fears of contracting the coronavirus in addition to financial insecurity.
A poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation in April 2020 found 34% of adults in the United States were classified as “essential.” Among them:
- Almost 1 in 3 said they would have to put an unexpected $500 medical bill on a credit card or borrow money.
- Almost 1 in 5 said they wouldn’t be able to pay it.
This type of financial insecurity can add up to an often draining work environment for people who didn’t have the option to work from home.
Parents whose kids were (or are) learning remotely — or were home due to trouble finding day care — may have also grappled with additional concerns.
“The pandemic has had a major impact on parents, particularly parents of younger children,” explains Christopher Beevers, professor and director of the Institute for Mental Health Research at the University of Texas at Austin.
“In many cases, the parents have had to take on multiple roles — caregiver, teacher, parent — with few opportunities to take a break,” he says.
“Simultaneously, many parents are also supposed to be working from home with their own set of deadlines and work responsibilities. This sort of multitasking is highly stressful and puts a huge burden on the family unit,” Beevers says.
If you’re still not sure how the pandemic has affected your mental health, you can use this checklist to get some clarity.
The mental health impact on children and teens
It isn’t just adults who have experienced mental health effects. Children’s mental health may have been affected by disruptions to their schoolwork, learning, and social lives.
An estimated 1.6 billion learners worldwide have been affected by school closures. This left many feeling isolated and disoriented by the lack of school routine and the difficulties that come with remote learning.
“For many students, online school has been an extreme challenge due to difficulty focusing and staying on task while attending school from home,” explains Kristel Roper, LMFT, LPCC. “Students with ADHD or other conditions that can make learning difficult have been even more negatively affected by the recent changes.”
Because of the school closures, some children with extra developmental needs have been less likely to be noticed and have their needs addressed by their teachers.
Myszak explains, “Children who would be identified in school as needing additional support may not be coming to the attention of the school, so they are not getting the services they need.”
There’s also been an increase in reported thoughts of suicide and self-harm among young adults. A recent report from Mental Health America showed an increase in these thoughts, especially among LGBTQIA+ youth.
If you have an existing mental health condition, the response to the COVID-19 pandemic may have made some symptoms worse.
“Individuals with anxiety often benefit from increased structure, positive social interactions, and spending time engaging in valued activities,” Roper explains. “All of these have been made much more difficult by the quarantine.”
In addition, physical distancing measures have made it more difficult for some people to find help when dealing with loss or substance use, as many mental health professionals and support groups moved online.
According to the CDC, there was an 18.2% increase in overdose-related deaths that accelerated around the time stay-at-home orders were put in place.
“Some have referred to the pandemic as an ‘accelerant’ that has exposed or exacerbated many vulnerabilities in society,” Beevers says.
“People who have experienced depression in the past or had mild symptoms leading into the pandemic were very likely at high risk for experiencing depression during the pandemic,” he says.
If you’ve been feeling like the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are making other mental health symptoms harder to manage, consider these resources:
- Psych Central: Depression Hotline Numbers: Here’s Where to Get Help
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America: Support Groups
- Psych Central: Treating Depression: What Are My Options?
- Psych Central: Coping with Coronavirus When You Already Have an Anxiety Disorder
- Psych Central: 5 Simple Tips to Reduce Anxiety During the COVID-19 Pandemic
- Psych Central: Living with an Anxiety Disorder: Home Remedies for Relief
- Healthline: 5 Simple Tips to Help Manage Social Anxiety After Leaving Lockdown
Interpersonal and domestic violence
- National Domestic Violence Hotline
- Futures Without Violence: Resources for Safety and Support During COVID-19
- Psych Central: Emotional Eating and the Coronavirus
- Psych Central: Midlife Eating Disorders in Quarantine
- National Eating Disorders Association: Helpline
- National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders: Helpline
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Psych Central: COVID-19 and Responsibility OCD
- Healthline: I Have OCD. These 5 Tips Are Helping Me Survive My Coronavirus Anxiety
- Medical News Today: How to Cope with OCD During the COVID-19 Pandemic
- International OCD Foundation: COVID-19 vs. Your OCD Symptoms
Other mental health resources
These resources are all from Psych Central:
Even as we continue to move forward, many people will be reeling and healing from the mental health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While time may be part of the healing equation, there’s a lot you can do now to take care of your mental health. And the rise of online therapy options has made professional mental healthcare more accessible for many people.
Here are a few ways to care for your mental health during the pandemic and beyond.
Create a daily routine
Our daily work commute and office routine were some of the first things to change with the pandemic. If you once had a strict train, mealtime, or day care pickup schedule, staying at home was a real shake-up to your daily routine.
That’s why it can help to create a personal daily routine.
“I would highly recommend creating your own structure through a routine that you follow each day,” Roper says.
For example, it can be helpful to wake up and eat meals at the same time.
Focus on reducing stress
Making time to take care of yourself can help you better handle the stressors in your life. Like a car trying to run without gas, your capacity to deal with stress may be limited if your physical and mental health are running on empty.
“I always recommend starting [with] the basics: eating well and exercising,” Beevers says. “Even just a 15- to 30-minute walk each day can help ease stress and anxiety.”
And if you enjoy meditation, yoga, or listening to calming music and sounds, you might schedule time to engage in these activities.
Set boundaries between work and home life
When you were still working in the office or on location for your job, the act of physically clocking out and heading home was a natural way to transition out of your workday. But when you’re working from home, it can be tough to leave the workday behind.
That’s why it’s a good idea to set boundaries between work time and home time.
For example, you could “commute” to another room in your house to work, and leave that room (and work computer) behind when you end your day.
If you have a home-based job with nonspecific hours, consider setting a regular work schedule to help prevent tasks from carrying over into your personal time.
This can be especially true for parents working at home with their children.
“Being able to turn off the computer, silence the phone, and engage in play and fun activities will speak volumes to children seeking attention,” Myszak says. “Showing children you are willing to spend time with them will be much more effective than anything you would say to them.”
Talk with a mental health professional
Many resources are available to help you manage mental health challenges during the pandemic. Online therapy is becoming more popular, and it’s proving effective for people during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some local and national support groups can also help free of cost. While these alternatives may not be as personalized as one-on-one therapy, it can help to talk with a community of people who’ve had similar experiences.
These groups may also help if you’re dealing with loneliness or isolation, because they allow you to interact and talk with people digitally.
Mental Health America has also created an extensive list of support groups that can help you find support if you’re dealing with mental health symptoms, domestic violence, or addiction.
Be kind to yourself
This idea gets repeated so often that it can be hard to remember what it truly means. Practicing kindness toward yourself can mean treating yourself like you’d treat a loved one when you’re feeling not so great.
“We can be our own worst critics,” Beevers says. “A little self-compassion can go a long way towards feeling better. We are all doing the best that we can under incredibly difficult circumstances.”
Many people are feeling relief after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. For them, it has helped lower anxiety about contracting the virus, being hospitalized, or dying as a result of the disease.
Still, many people have been skeptical of the vaccine’s accelerated rollout and possible side effects. This remains a real concern among some people in the United States.
“For those who are wary of the vaccine, I always recommend doing your research,” Beevers says. “One of the best things you can do is ask your own trusted healthcare team. They’ll be able to share their professional opinions with your specific needs in mind.”
You can also talk with friends and family about their experiences during the pandemic and with the vaccine. Since so much of the pandemic was marked by distancing our relationships, there’s great potential for healing as we start to slowly and safely reunite.
“For many, the vaccine rollout has brought with it a collective sigh of relief,” Beevers says. “It has also likely been highly emotional for many as we begin to see our loved ones, friends, neighbors, and communities get the vaccine and feel, for the first time in a while, that feeling of hope.”
Millions of people are getting vaccinated every day. As vaccinations continue to increase and some areas of the United States see a decline in new COVID-19 cases, many see a light at the end of the tunnel.
But as we look toward the future, it’s not uncommon for lingering anxieties from the past year to come to the forefront.
Children may be anxious about returning to school or public parks after being told for so long to avoid large gatherings. Adults may be anxious about taking public transportation to work or sitting in an office again.
“I definitely have patients with ‘reentry’ anxiety,” Roper says. “Often these folks have found ways to minimize leaving their house at all over the past year, and so we have had to work on taking small steps towards reentry.”
Anxiety over reopening may also be felt by people who found positive changes during the pandemic. Some families have found strengthened bonds by spending more time together, or taken up new habits and hobbies like cooking.
If you find yourself experiencing anxiety as things reopen, one helpful way to manage it is by setting boundaries that make you feel safer.
People with anxiety or PTSD — and introverts who found their pre-pandemic schedule overstimulating — have also noticed some positive changes, Myszak shares.
Less time commuting, more time spent at home, and not feeling as pressured to socialize have been welcome changes for some.
As we keep navigating reopening in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s normal to still not feel 100%. Self-care or professional support can help as you manage these changes at your own pace.